On 5 June 1956, the King was Born when Elvis shocked the world with his wild hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times called him “a bore in a burlesque show”, and The New York Daily News called him “Elvis the Pelvis” but fuck the squares: the girls loved him, and the boys wanted to be him. When the country woke up on the 6th, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Perry Como were surprised to find out they were no longer the music stars they were when they went to bed. Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party went daytime national and a Philadelphia’s small afternoon music show, American Bandstand, got a new teenage host, Dick Clark, and within a month it went national. Small regional acts were soon playing across the country. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and a new Vanguard of Cool had unfettered access to the American soul.
For the next 20 glorious months, there was no “White Music” and there was no “Black Music”, there was only Rock and Roll. It and in particular its swing dancing, wild, devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly, dominated the American consciousness.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Jerry Lee Lewis was a national pariah after marrying his 13 year old cousin in December 1957. Elvis was drafted in March 1958. Also that year, Alan Freed, and just about every DJ in America, was caught up in the “Payola scandal” of accepting bribes for record plays. Little Richard left the music industry to pursue a life of ministry in 1958, and also that year Gene Vincent was shut down after the IRS forced him to sell everything to pay his taxes. Johnny Cash had a messy divorce from the Sun Music and started recording gospel music. His friend Carl Perkins left soon thereafter.
Not all was lost, in late 1958, four of the biggest names in Rock and Roll toured together across the Midwest. Buddy Holly was a founding member of Rock and Roll and his bespeckled appearance gave heart to millions of teenagers that they too could get laid if they played the guitar. Dion spoke straight to audiences’ needs with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, was the face of Rockabilly with his anthem “Chantilly Lace”. And finally Californian Ritchie Valens, whose Spanish language “La Bamba” converted entire demographics to Rock and Roll. Their Winter Dance Party tour played to screaming crowds at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959.
The tour was having problems, not musically but logistically. The tour venues were too far apart and the bands were stuck in old buses for far too long, so long that it was affecting their set up times and performances. The weather was freezing and one of the tour buses lacked heat. Several band members were sick. Before the show at the Sun Ballroom, Holly decided to charter a plane for him and his band, the Crickets, to get to their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. The manager of the ballroom contracted Dwyer Flying Service to fly them to Fargo, North Dakota, a short drive from Moorhead.
After the show, Richardson, who had the flu asked Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, if he could have his seat, and Jennings graciously acquiesced. Valens asked Holly’s guitarist for his seat and they flipped a coin on it. Valens won. Dion was asked if he wanted the last seat on the plane, but the $36 price was exactly what his mother to rent his childhood apartment and he couldn’t “justify the indulgence”.
When Holly learned Jennings wasn’t taking the flight he joked, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings snarkily responded, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”.
The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.
In the snowy weather, the pilot had no stars to observe, no lights on the ground to judge his position and he couldn’t even see the horizon. He flew straight into the ground and the plane cartwheeled across a field in Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors.
The Golden Age of Rock and Roll was over.
The Music died in an Iowa cornfield.
Johnny Cash’s first big hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he went on to be one of the biggest names in Country music, and Rock and Roll, for the next ten years. But by the late 60s Cash’s career was on the slippery down slope. He was having an open affair with fellow performer June Carter. He was addicted to pain killers and had been arrested for trespassing and drug trafficking. He was the worst sort of live performer who routinely missed concert dates, and because of his addiction was usually too bombed out of his mind to perform when he didn’t miss. His outlaw persona was catching up with him. By the end of 1967, he was one failed album away from just becoming another casualty to the Rock and Roll lifestyle.
He earlier decided to record a live album at the prison whose name launched his career, Folsom County Prison just outside Sacramento, California. Cash had played prisons before, and had even played Folsom before, but this would be the first time he’d record a live album while doing so. This would also be the first time he would be sober for the performance. On New Year’s 1968, Cash vowed to turn his life around, if only for June and his children’s sakes. And “At Folsom Prison” would be his comeback, both professionally and personally.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With these words, two thousand hardened inmates of Folsom County Prison jumped up to wild applause as if they were high school kids at the year’s big concert event. Cash’s clean and sober performance was his best in years. Cash ended the performance by unexpectedly playing a song “Greystone Chapel”, written by one of the inmates.
Only two reporters accompanied Cash inside the prison to cover the event because most of the media had already dismissed Cash as a has-been, and one of whom was hired by Cash to document the event for the album sleeve. They witnessed the rebirth of a star and they’re still receiving royalties for their photographs to this day. At Folsom Prison is easily Cash’s best live performance and arguably one of the best live albums ever.
At Folsom Prison was released just four months later and resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. The clean and sober Johnny Cash learned to cultivate his outlaw status without it killing him. He would eventually divorce his wife and marry June Carter. Cash would become a leading advocate for prison reform in the United States and eventually testify to Congress in 1978.
America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.
The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it
In late 1966, The Doors were an opening band at the Whiskey A Go Go for bigger LA acts such as the Byrds and Them (with a young Van Morrison). In January 1967, they released their self titled debut album, but it really didn’t go anywhere due to suggestive and “obscene” lyrics, drug references , and song length. But the album was a hit with the counterculture movement and the underground psychedelic scene. Their first single release off the album, “Break On Through” was a flop (!??!?!?) but the much longer “Light My Fire” kept getting radio airplay requests. However, at 7:06, it was far too long to play over the radio.
On 3 June 1967, The Doors released a shortened three minute version for use on the radio. This shorter version of Light My Fire catapulted The Doors onto the national music scene. They’d be asked to play the song on the Ed Sullivan show with adjusted lyrics for “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” The Doors agreed and even rehearsed the new line. But when the time came, Jim Morrison sang the original line on national TV, and after the show lost their contract with the producers. The Doors didn’t care – They “did Sullivan”. Light My Fire dominated the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”.
Like every other rock band during the British Invasion era, the band “Earth” started as a blues tribute garage rock band. But after being double booked with another band of the same name, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Ozbourne decided to change their name to “Black Sabbath” after the Boris Karlov flick that was playing across the street from one of their rehearsals.
Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album in early 1970. It was a commercial success but critics hated it. BS found their niche in the darker themes reminiscent of Karlov’s movies and “stupid melodies” that were quite different than the flower power and hippie music that dominated the charts. In the fall of 1970, Black Sabbath went back to the studio to record the songs that they didn’t get a chance to for their first album.
They had just two days to record and one to mix. At the end of the second day, their album “War Pigs” was finished. However, their producer said they needed another three minutes of music. Iommi quickly came up with a riff, Ozbourne some angsty and depressing lyrics, and Butler called it “Paranoid”, which Ozbourne replied, “What the f**k does that even mean?” “Paranoid” took 25 minutes to record from request to final cut.
With the “counter culture” mainstream, Black Sabbath didn’t want the anti Vietnam song War Pigs to headline the album lest it get lost in all of the other aforementioned flower power music on the charts. They decided to name it after the shortest song on the album and the one most likely to get radio time: the afterthought, Paranoid.
Paranoid released in Oct 1970 in the UK, but it’s the release in the US on 7 January 1971 that changed the world. Like before, critics hated it, and it received near zero radio time. But the generation of resentful kids who were just then coming of age and beginning to realize they missed the crazy days of the swinging late sixties that their big brothers and sisters experienced, absolutely loved it. Most of the combat troops left Vietnam, the draft was winding down, and the economy began to stagnate, so what did it all mean? The world of Paranoid provided a glimpse of the answer. (And it helped that the songs were simple to enough to inspire a new generation of band members to pick up instruments and emulate them.)
Most of Black Sabbath’s signature songs appeared on the album. These included Paranoid, War Pigs, and one fantastical story of a future traveller who saw the end of the world but was turned to metal by a magnetic field on his return. The Iron Man then brought about the very apocalypse he warned against when his people wouldn’t believe him.
And Heavy Metal was born. \m/